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Child Safety: School Bus Still Best

Experts weigh the merits of changing safety standards of school buses.
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Using Seats for Safety

A key safety concept in full-sized school buses is called "compartmentalization." The thickly padded bench seats are spaced close together and have high backs, creating a compartment that protects passengers in a collision.

The NHTSA contends that compartmentalization alone is adequate crash protection, and that to mandate seat belts in addition would be messing with success. Seat belts, officials say, limit the number of kids who can squeeze into a bus seat. That might mean some schools would have to buy more buses, or else tell kids to find another way to school. "You're going to require that these displaced students use much riskier transportation modes," Bolton says, referring to the relatively low rate of deaths in school bus crashes.

"That's a position that we ascribe to as an industry," says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. "We try to follow [NHTSA's] guidance whenever we can."

The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, wants to see three-point safety belts in every school bus, a position it has held since 1996. "We are still in favor of that," says Denise Dowd, MD, a member of the academy's Committee on Injury and Poison Prevention and chief of the section of injury prevention at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo.

Dowd says too little is known about injuries to conclude that buses are safe enough without seat belts. "There's not any good tracking system or accumulation of data for nonfatal injuries that you can tie directly to school buses," she tells WebMD.

What's more, compartmentalization is designed primarily to protect passengers in head-on or rear-end collisions. What happens if, for example, a bus tips over?

In October 2005 such an accident occurred in the rural community of Plainfield, N.H. A bus taking kids home from school ran off the shoulder of a narrow, winding dirt road and flipped on its side. None of the 28 children on board was injured. All but one were wearing seat belts.

It's easy to imagine how unrestrained kids on the high side of the overturned bus could have been hurt, or could have injured others, by tumbling out of their seats. But no one knows for sure, because this kind of accident hasn't been studied. "There's a lot of evidence that's lacking," Dowd says.

According to Superintendent Russell Collins, Plainfield school buses have been equipped with lap belts for more than a decade. But in a sparsely populated district, where the bus stops for most students at their own driveways, school administrators haven't had to weigh safety vs. reduced passenger capacity. "That issue has never come up," Collins says.

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